This blog post is based on a talk I gave for my ward on February 12, 2023.
A little over seven years ago I got the idea of reading through all the General Conference talks that are easily available on the Church’s website, which means going back to the April 1971 General Conference. I haven’t kept to my schedule perfectly since then, but I’ve read many, many talks, and I’ve really gained an appreciation for the wisdom and consistency of these teachings.
So when I was asked to give a talk on the fourth temple recommend question–a kind of topic I’ve never heard of before–I knew where to start. I did a quick search and ended up reading (or at least skimming) about two dozen talks, some of which were incredibly powerful to me. I’ll be quoting from these talks at length.
But let’s start with the topic. Since I don’t expect most folks to have the temple recommend interviews memorized, here is the fourth one:
Do you sustain the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as the prophet, seer, and revelator and as the only person on the earth authorized to exercise all priesthood keys?
Do you sustain the members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as prophets, seers, and revelators?
Do you sustain the other General Authorities and local leaders of the Church? (Church News)
Boiling down the multi-part question to a single topic, it’s this: sustaining our leaders. Here’s what I learned about this topic.
The return of prophets is a key aspect of the Restoration.
My dear brothers and sisters, if the Restoration did anything, it shattered the age-old myth that God had stopped talking to His children. (Sustaining the Prophets)
In all else that he accomplished in his brief 38 and a half years, Joseph left us above all else the resolute legacy of divine revelation—not a single, isolated revelation without evidence or consequence, and not “a mild sort of inspiration seeping into the minds of all good people” everywhere, but specific, documented, ongoing directions from God. (Prophets, Seers, and Revelators)
The purpose of prophets and apostles is to testify of Christ.
The fundamental responsibility of prophets, seers, and revelators, all of whom bear apostolic authority, is to bear certain testimony of the name of Jesus Christ in all the world. This basic call to be a special witness of His name has remained constant whenever Apostles have been on the earth. This testimony, borne of the Holy Ghost through revelation, was the heart of the New Testament Church and is the heart of the Church today. (Living Prophets, Seers, and Revelators)
The prophetic witness is most vital in times of danger and confusion.
[T]he apostolic and prophetic foundation of the Church was to bless in all times, but especially in times of adversity or danger, times when we might feel like children, confused or disoriented, perhaps a little fearful, times in which the devious hand of men or the maliciousness of the devil would attempt to unsettle or mislead. Against such times as come in our modern day, the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve are commissioned by God and sustained by you as prophets, seers, and revelators, with the President of the Church sustained as the prophet, seer, and revelator, the senior Apostle, and as such the only man authorized to exercise all of the revelatory and administrative keys for the Church. (Prophets, Seers, and Revelators, emphasis added)
Speaking for myself, I know that I’ve felt a growing sense of confusion and disorientation over the past several years. The opening stanza from W. B. Yeats’s poem The Second Coming often comes to mind:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
“Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.” These words capture perfectly the spiraling sense of extremism and radicalism in our nation and across the world, paired with dwindling levels of social trust in each other and in the institutions–like government and the press–that we rely upon to form a cohesive society. Even when imperfect, the Lord is angry with those who “destroy the peace of [his] people and the government.” (3 Nephi 9:9)
If you yearn for a sense of stability and clarity and safety in these uncertain times, then one of the most important things that you can do is to stay close to the people the Lord has chosen to steward His Church. We can do this by sustaining those leaders.
Sustaining involves action.
As I read through the talks on sustaining leaders, the first thing that became obvious to me is that sustaining isn’t just a kind of mental ascent or even a sort of emotional agreement. Sustaining requires action. Here are a selection of quotes that all repeat this central concept:
- It is no small thing to “sustain” another person. The word literally means to “uphold” or, if you prefer, to “hold up.” When we sustain life, we nourish it, we keep it going. When we sustain a friend or a neighbor or a stranger in the street, we give support, we share strength, we provide help. We hold each other up under the weight of present circumstance. We bear one another’s burdens under the heavy personal pressures of life. (Elder Holland in “He Loved Them unto the End”)
- To sustain our leaders is a privilege; it comes coupled with a personal responsibility to share their burden and to be disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. (Elder Rasband in The Joyful Burden of Discipleship)
- The procedure of sustaining is much more than a ritualistic raising of the hand. It is a commitment to uphold, to support, to assist those who have been selected. (President Hinckley in The Work Is Concerned with People)
- Our sustaining of prophets is a personal commitment that we will do our utmost to uphold their prophetic priorities. Our sustaining is an oath-like indication that we recognize their calling as a prophet to be legitimate and binding upon us. (President Nelson in Sustaining the Prophets)
- How do we really sustain a prophet? Long before he became President of the Church, President Joseph F. Smith explained, “It is an important duty resting upon the Saints who … sustain the authorities of the Church, to do so not only by the lifting of the hand, the mere form, but in deed and in truth.” (President Nelson in Sustaining the Prophets)
- Twenty-six years before he became President of the Church, then-Elder George Albert Smith said: “The obligation that we make when we raise our hands … is a most sacred one. It does not mean that we will go quietly on our way and be willing that the prophet of the Lord shall direct this work, but it means … that we will stand behind him; we will pray for him; we will defend his good name, and we will strive to carry out his instructions as the Lord shall direct.” (President Nelson in Sustaining the Prophets)
- Brethren, our sustaining support of prophets, seers, and revelators is not in the upraised hand alone, but more so in our courage, testimony, and faith to listen to, heed, and follow them. (Neuenschwander in Living Prophets, Seers, and Revelators)
Sustaining entails obedience.
What kind of action is involved in sustaining? The most important one that I saw reference to was obedience, and I read a story I don’t remember ever hearing before that exemplified just how deep this commitment can go. It came from President Nelson’s talk, Sustaining the Prophets, but it was about (then) Elder Kimball.
In 1972, when President Kimball was Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, he was experience heart failure. President Nelson, a heart surgeon, recommended against surgery for President Kimball. He (President Nelson) told him so himself.
But the First Presidency knew better, and the advised President Kimball to go ahead with the surgery. President Kimball agreed to do so, and President Nelson agreed to conduct the surgery. President Nelson wrote, “That shows how he sustained his leaders! And his decision made me tremble!”
Who do we sustain?
One of the things I learned as I read these talks was that the concept of “sustaining” is fairly broad. President Eyring taught that we sustain our leaders, all of them, in an unbroken hierarchy from local leaders up to the President of the Church:
There is a thread that binds us to the Lord in our service. It runs from wherever we are called to serve in the kingdom, up through those called to preside over us in the priesthood, and to the prophet, who is bound to the Lord. It takes faith and humility to serve in the place to which we are called, to trust that the Lord called us and those who preside over us, and to sustain them with full faith. (The Lord Leads His Church)
But the scope of sustaining is wider than that. Elder Todd Christofferson, in a talk about the power of covenants, used the language of sustaining and taught that we sustain each other: “We are part of a covenant people, a community of Saints who encourage, sustain, and minister to one another.” (The Power of Covenants)
Sustaining is an unusual word, and so we might not realize how ordinary and everyday it is, but it just means to support. Of course we should support each other as fellow Saints.
I also learned that, just as we support each other, God supports us. From Elder Christofferson again:
What is the source of such moral and spiritual power, and how do we obtain it? The source is God. Our access to that power is through our covenants with Him. A covenant is an agreement between God and man, an accord whose terms are set by God In these divine agreements, God binds Himself to sustain, sanctify, and exalt us in return for our commitment to serve Him and keep His commandments…
Divine covenants make strong Christians. I urge each one to qualify for and receive all the priesthood ordinances you can and then faithfully keep the promises you have made by covenant. In times of distress, let your covenants be paramount and let your obedience be exact. Then you can ask in faith, nothing wavering, according to your need, and God will answer. He will sustain you as you work and watch. In His own time and way He will stretch forth his hand to you, saying, “Here am I.” (The Power of Covenants)
Sustaining unites us.
I found an extraordinary metaphor for sustaining when I read Sister Janette Hales Beckham Young’s talk, Sustaining the Living Prophets:
When you play a violin, if it is in tune you can move the bow across one string and the other strings vibrate. The harmonious strings not only help sustain the sound, but they enlarge and carry the sound.
As each of us listens to the prophet and responds to his message, if we are in tune we can carry his message with us. Others will feel the prophet’s message because of the way we act. In this way the message doesn’t end tonight—it just begins.
As we sustain our leaders, we draw closer to them. But we also draw closer to everyone else who is sustaining the leaders. We grow closer as a community, better able to sustain and minister to each other as well as to support our leaders. Sustaining is thus a key principle of Zion, as following the practice will draw us closer to the day when we become “one heart and one mind” (Moses 7:18).
Part of sustaining is obedience, and we ought to obey our leaders. But there is a very important difference for me between obeying God and obeying our leaders. God does not depend on us, and we can rest assured that His commandments are always perfect. But not everything our leaders ask us to do is perfect, and–unlike God–they do depend on us. God deserves our support, but He does not need it. Our leaders do not necessarily deserve our support, but they do need it.
Elder Eyring taught this incredibly clearly and humbly in his talk The Lord Leads His Church. He recounted a time when he had been a bishop of a young adult ward.
I remember one young man who asked for counsel about his educational choices. He was a freshman at a very good university. A week after I had given the advice, he scheduled an appointment with me.
When he came into the office, he surprised me by asking, “Bishop, could we pray before we talk? And could we kneel? And may I pray?”
His requests surprised me. But his prayer surprised me even more. It went something like this: “Heavenly Father, You know that Bishop Eyring gave me advice last week, and it didn’t work. Please inspire him to know what I am to do now.”
Now you might smile at that, but I didn’t. He already knew what the Lord wanted him to do. But he honored the office of a bishop in the Lord’s Church and perhaps wanted me to have the chance to gain greater confidence to receive revelation in that calling.
It worked. As soon as we stood up and then sat down, the revelation came to me. I told him what I felt the Lord would have him do. He was only 18 years old then, but he was mature in spiritual years… From that experience, I carried away the lesson that the faith of the people we serve, sometimes more than our own faith, brings us revelation in the Lord’s service.
The young man in this story reminds me of Nephi, who gave one of the clearest and simplest examples of sustaining leaders when he asked his father Lehi where he (Nephi) should go to hunt for food. If you remember the story, after Nephi broke his bow everyone around hims despaired and complained against the Lord, even Lehi. Nephi made a new bow himself. He made arrows himself. He could have gone and hunted on his own, but instead he chose to deliberately elevate his father with his faith. This is sustaining, and we do it because our leaders need us as much as we need them.
This is what Elder Eyring taught (in the same talk):
These members have to know the call to serve as a bishop came from the Lord, by revelation. Without their faith, the bishop, who was called of God, will find it harder to get the revelation he needs to help them. He will not succeed without the faith of the members to sustain him…For a leader to succeed in the Lord’s work, the people’s trust that he is called of God must override their view of his infirmities and mortal weaknesses.
The Lord does not expect us to be blind to the faults and shortcomings of our leaders. Most probably, they will be plain to see. But he expects us to see more rather than less. To see not only what they may get wrong or where they may fall short, but also to see the divine potential in them that He sees in them. As Elder Eyring said (still in the same talk):
Your leader in the Lord’s Church may seem to you weak and human or may appear to you strong and inspired. The fact is that every leader is a mixture of those traits and more. What helps servants of the Lord who are called to lead us is when we can see them as the Lord did when He called them.
The Lord sees His servants perfectly. He sees their potential and their future. And He knows how their very nature can be changed. He also knows how they can be changed by their experiences with the people they will lead.
One more example of the teaching that imperfect leaders depend on our sustaining support comes from President Benson, who said:
I am reminded how Moses up on the hill raised his arms for the victory of the armies of Israel. As long as his arms were raised, Israel prevailed, but when they dropped from weariness, then the enemy prevailed. And so Aaron and Hur “stayed up his hands, the one on the one side, and the other on the other side,” and Israel was victorious. So will we be victorious as we hold up the arms of the Lord’s anointed servants. (A Sacred Responsibility)
Jesus Christ is the exemplar.
Of all the talks I read to prepare my own talk, the one that struck me with the most force was from Elder Holland, called “He Loved Them unto the End”. In this talk, he taught clearly that Jesus Christ is the standard for what it means to sustain:
As with all else in our experience, the Lord Jesus Christ is our exemplar and ideal in this very important matter of providing sustenance. His is the ultimate arm of strength and his the endurance which endures all things. At no time did he demonstrate that unfailing devotion more clearly than during the final moments of his earthly life, hours when he might well have wished that others could have been sustaining him.
As the sacred supper of that ultimate Passover was being prepared, Jesus was under the strain of deep and profound emotion. Only he knew what lay immediately ahead, but perhaps even he did not fully anticipate the depth of pain to which he must go before it could be said, “The Son of Man hath descended below them all.” (D&C 122:8.)
In the midst of this meal and such thoughts, Christ quietly arose, girded himself as a slave or servant would, and knelt to wash the Apostles’ feet. (See John 13:3–17.) This small circle of believers in this scarcely founded kingdom were about to pass through their severest trial, so he would set aside his own increasing anguish in order that he might yet once more serve and strengthen them. It does not matter that no one washed his feet. In transcendent humility he would continue to teach and to cleanse them. He would to the final hour—and beyond—be their sustaining servant. As John wrote, who was there and watched the wonder of it all, “Having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end.” (John 13:1.)
His disciples, understandably, were weary and soon fell asleep. What of Christ’s sleep? What of his fatigue? What rest or slumber will sustain him through such an agonizing ordeal? That is simply not his concern here, nor does it ever seem to be. He will endure. He will triumph. He will not falter nor fail us.
Life has its share of some fear and some failure. Sometimes things fall short, don’t quite measure up. Sometimes in both personal and public life, we are seemingly left without strength to go on. Sometimes people fail us, or economies and circumstance fail us, and life with its hardship and heartache can leave us feeling very alone.
But when such difficult moments come to us, I testify that there is one thing which will never, ever fail us. One thing alone will stand the test of all time, of all tribulation, all trouble, and all transgression. One thing only never faileth—and that is the pure love of Christ.
“I remember,” Moroni cries to the Savior of the world, “that thou hast said that thou hast loved the world, even unto the laying down of thy life for the world. …
“Now I know,” he writes, “that this love which thou hast had for the children of men is charity.”
I cannot read Elder Holland’s fervent testimony of Christ’s love with dry eyes. I am reminded of the words of John the Evangelist: “We love him, because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19) Or, in alternative translations like the NRSV, “We love because he first loved us.”
To sustain someone is an act of love, and just as Jesus showed us the greatest love the world has ever known, he also showed us how to use that love to sustain one another. In this time of uncertainty and confusion, it is important for us to follow His example and to sustain each other and in particular our leaders. Not because they deserve it. But because they need it. They need us. And we, in turn, need them.
We all need each other, and it is in serving and sustaining each other, we draw closer to each other and to Jesus who will, with the infinite power of His Atonement, make us one at last.